Reading: Mike Searle — Colliding Continents: A geological exploration of the Himalaya, Karakoram, and Tibet

Here comes a deluge of serious reading. Well, another serious than the sci-fi I’ve been on of late (though with a new one from Charles Stross, and Iain Banks’ – sadly sans-M – last one in the next weeks, I’m well-stocked for that flavour of serious), or perhaps gratuitously indulgent, after all, what could be more appealing that bloody massive upheavals of granite which can be either climbed or geologised, or in the case of Mike Searle’s Colliding Continents, both at the same time?

This turned up in my feed from Oxford University Press’ blog, and I decided to dispense with the actual reading of their post for the important act of ordering the book. Which arrived on Saturday, and which, obviously, I’ve devoured a third of already.

This is one of those very nice, medium-large hardcovers with barely a page empty of maps, illustrations, diagrams, or more importantly utterly gorgeous photographs of mountains. It’s light on the technical side of geology, meaning someone with no prior knowledge of the subject would nonetheless not feel bewildered, yet equally there’s a lot of terms even I, who used to slip into the Geology department and temporarily purloin monographs of the Karakoram had to pause to visualise what was actually meant. Lucky there’s 30 pages of appendices covering all of this, and I think reading those first is probably a good idea.

Quite a bit of my interest in that region where Tibet becomes Central Asia becomes Indian subcontinent comes from geology. Also it comes from Deleuze and Guattari and reading of Steppe nomads, then looking at maps and trying to pin into that vast blankness between the Black Sea and the east coast of China names like Gobi, Taklamakan, Kashgar, Karakoram. Vast and blank indeed. So I set out to rectify my ignorance, becoming years – probably a lifetime as I’ve never been bored by this – of reading and reading and yes, still planning to go there.

A book like this is mainly a small moment of satisfying this love of mountains and this part of the world, and it does both superbly. Searle is one of those sensible geologists who realise early on it’s the obvious career choice for someone who thinks suffering their way up glaciers and cliffs is most excellent fun, and whose love of both subjects only adds to his abilities in each.

The only thing that’s missing for me is a map or maps of his annual-ish field trips. There are plenty of geological maps accompanying each chapter but either my map-reading skills have descended to bathic levels, I’m missing something fundamental, or there’s a lack of correlation between those maps and the paths of the journeys he undertook. Perhaps unnecessary, but for me this would be an essential inclusion.

So, 464 pages of mountains! The cover pretty much sums it up; it’s all just a lover’s ode to the most beautiful upthrusting of granite in the world.

Reading: Charles King – The Ghost of Freedom: A History of the Caucasus

The space between where China is squeezed out into the ocean between Japan and Philippines to the east and Europe to the west – particularly that mysterious place north of the Himalayas was once a blank for me on any map. I had no idea what countries were there, though had heard of the Gobi, and other seductive, beguiling, antique places of the Orient. Thanks to a chapter from Deleuze, I embarked on a reading spree of the history of the Steppe, Central Asia, China, the ~stans, all that, the geology of Baltistan, high-altitude farming in Wakhan, so so very much of China – more than a lifetime could be given to just one province (Guangdong, for example).

In these years since I first began reading, more than fifteen, though with a long pause after I graduated until I suppose around the time of that stale-smoke tainted copy of Louis Dupree’s Afghanistan in 2008, my reading has often been erratic over whatever topic has snagged me, countered by a ‘filling-in-the-gaps’ process of which I seem to be in at the moment.

First, Iran. Afsaneh Najmabadi’s Women with Mustaches and Men Without Beards, which is going to be one of my books of the year, that is introducing me to Iran, a country I know not so much about as most of my encounters are either mediated by Afghanistan or via millennia-old history. And from there, a chance remark by languagehat in the comments led me to Charles King’s The Ghost of Freedom: A History of the Caucasus. About which I can say not much except he speaks highly of the author. Elsewhere I’ve seen mixed opinions, so I am approaching this as a book that might inform me of the author as much as the subject.

Still, the Caucasus. Besides the strife of the last decades – much like Afghanistan in terms of the majority of what’s written on the region – I know very little about this mountainous finger of land splitting Black from Caspian Seas. I did once read a piece on enclaves and exclaves in the Caucasus … Consider this the beginning of a new education.

Sunday Kunst

Yesterday I took myself off south-west on a journey I have had far too much time to do before now yet have never done so. Dahlem Museen has one of the wonders of Central Asia, depending on how one looks at it, pillaged from Xinjiang and other ~stans, or saved from the Cultural Revolution, or well, yes saved from that but even before destroyed in the Second World War. And even before all that, some time when Islamic zealots were being rigorous in raining righteous vengeance down on idolatry (i.e. around a millennium before the Taliban at Bamiyan), most of the faces of Buddha were methodically bashed out.

So of what’s left, besides what Auriel Stein picked up for the British Museum and other Great Game ethnologists in Paris and Beijing, the Grünwendel and LeCoq purloinments ending up in Berlin comprise one of the largest collections of Central Asian, Silk Route, and Buddhist art in the world. Mmm, yes, why I have waited four years to drag myself half and hour to Dahlem is a mystery.

Maybe because the exhibition halls are so vast and many. I spent five hours there yesterday and barely passed over the contents of two of the halls, of which there are around eighteen. I had to take a pause mid-way also, before climbing the stairs for the Chinese collections of red lacquer, ceramics, tea ceremony objects, purposefully avoiding anything not absolutely Central Asian or Chinese (besides some Japanese stuff), just to be able to be thrown out at closing having seen at least some of what I went there for.

And then to the Konzerthaus, picking up Dasniya fortuitously in the U-Bahn, to see the Kammerorchester Berlin and our friend and Contrabass player Jochen work their way through 90 minutes of Bach, Telemann, and Vivaldi.

And somehow this beautiful Bodhisattva Guanyin of all the masses of heartrendingly beautiful art quite grabbed me. And this tea ceremony water pot also.

Reading … A 5th Anniversary

And … here we go again. Another year finishing arbitrarily in mid-ish-October marking approximately an anniversary of when I first decided to blab about whatever I happened to be reading, with the caveat that no, no writing about what I was reading would take place as that would subtract from my personal enjoyment. Naturally that led to me writing on everything I read, and it seems reading more.

A grand total (of which I shall claim no accuracy) of 53 books variously inhaled, ingested, munched on, fallen asleep under, split food and drink upon, folded corners of, stuffed in bags, avoided doing proper (or any) work in preference for, broken the spines of, laughed at (a lot), left unfinished (only the worst or most difficult; the latter inevitably to be advanced into the finished pile because they look at me so mournfully from my shelves), caught myself daydreaming about, raced home with extra speed just because I knew they were waiting, cursed for unforgivably shoddy proofreading, read again, daydreamed about reading again again, smiled at fondly when they catch my eye each spine as distinctive as a friend, sat on my window ledge warmed by both book and sun, breathed the scent of their pages new and old along with the feel and weight of each, cringed with embarrassment at the worst covers and for the best, they lie in my mind inextricable from the words contained, filled one and an half more shelves with, oh yes, a year of books.

So, to the books:

Hmm, oh! wow, oh yeah …, haha, wow, again wow, mhmm, yup, oh yes that was good, uh that one was tough, eeerrrr …yes, oh god no, bloody indeed, eeeee!, meh, hmm was ok, uuh another tough one, Shanghai!, hmmm…, good title but, … oh god awful, oh god! amazing!, ja not quite his best, ah train ride from Brussels, well that was a book, hmm ok, hmm not so ok, ja pretty good, wow! just utterly wow! oh droll, yes, uhhh no.

There were a few horrible experiences in there, and a few more perturbing because ah, well, I got to the end and felt nothing, but I’d rather dwell this year on the ones, those ones, above, with the exclamation marks after (not you, H.P., that eeeee! is for you, and you gave me nightmares), those sublime moments that … well, maybe to say I know of some books which have made readers of my friends in the past, and there are a couple in the last year — I’m not including re-reads, because that would be cheating, but even were I to do so, well considering one of the new ones got itself re-read almost immediately — oh but they are brilliant. Beautiful, entrancing, good covers too, and one of them even is almost as perfect as  Feersum Endjinn which for me is irrationally my favourite book.

So, there are three, but one extra must be mentioned even though I find it problematic in parts and feel that my dim-wittedness has been overwhelmed by its oratory, that quite possibly it contains work of sophistry, even though, even though I think equally it’s absolutely critical reading, and it reminded me clearly why, if I must subscribe to a system or label it would be and has long been, ‘anarchist’, and as we are dragged ever further into a totalitarianism by politicians willingly in the thrall of bankers and corporations given the status of personhood, while we, goaded with barbs of austerity, entirely without a meaningful social, economic, or political alternative and losing incrementally our human rights as a person, we would do bloody well to read David Graeber’s Debt: The First 5000 Years, and start behaving as is appropriate for one whose neck is fast in the noose.

I’m not sure how I can go from that to writing about science-fiction, though perhaps that one of the authors is a Marxist soothes the transition somewhat. I’ll stick with non-fiction first though.

And my non-fiction book of the year is Annemarie Schwarzenbach – All the Roads are Open: The Afghan Journey (trans. Isabel Fargo Cole), which I read earlier this year and so my memory of it is one of cumulative memories, but still, Schwarzenbach has only now been translated into english and she is a very important addition to writing on Central Asia during the late-interwar years. I’ve read a small bit of her in German, and even from that felt this translation was faithful to the feeling of the text as well as the content, and given that the cover art, binding and general presentation is all-round very attractive (and yes, these things matter), well what more do you want?.

I’ve also has the misfortune to read the work of her English travel companion, and other English language writers both female and male from this period, and she puts them to shame. Even with a drug addiction she has an empathy and awareness for the land and people through which she moves which I’ve seldom found in other writers (Vita Sackville-West and Ella Maillart I’m definitely looking at you).

Yes, so, unlike Debt, the audience for 1930s Central Asian and Afghanistan reportage is quite slim, but, ah Annemarie, she deserves to be read. And the story of how she came to be translated from German to English by way of India is one that also deserves to be told.

And the fiction.

Ok, science-fiction.

China Miéville! Bloody hell! What an absolute stunner of a book. I mean, come on, I’ve read everything he’s written (fiction-wise, with the exception of some short stories), and Un Lun Dun was my book of the year last year, Kraken the year before, while Embassytown came pretty close also and he just gets better and better. Railsea was so good, so caught me in its beautiful story that I read it again two months after the first whizz through.

And yes, it’s the slightly odd pre-ending with the devolved bureaucrats that stuck in my maw both times, and I somehow understand in the context of what is nominally a children’s book (or ‘young adult’s’ whatever the fuck that is), that perhaps if this was of the epic scale of either Embassytown or The Scar this scene likely wouldn’t be there … and doesn’t he have a train fixation?

Really, this is the first book that’s even come more than passingly close to Iain M. Banks’ Feersum Endjinn, which for some reason I adore on a cellular level, and above all others I’ve read, which may be in all this writing on books I’ve read the one I compare each new one to and find even at the most sublime, wanting. Yes, Railsea is also wanting, but only by a tiny, tiny, thin sliver of a degree.

And so on to the surprise of the year, the one that oh so nearly toppled Railsea.

Strange to think that while it so nearly accomplished this, I can’t really place it beside Feersum Endjinn and make a comparison (and so I hull my above comparison theory quite entirely). Jo Walton’s Among Others. It’s more of a love letter to every public library, every second-hand bookshop, every book club that really cared about books and reading, and yes, science-fiction, a series of one-liner remarks of ’60s and ’70s sci-fi (and I, Claudius), and then some magic.

Ah, that last word. Tricky. Me and fantasy (which I find myself inadvertently reading a little too often), is like me and crappy science-fiction. And yet here, for once thankfully no castles and monarchies (though some eccentric wealthy British types), and the elves or fairies often resemble animated forest mulch, and spoke like it too.

It sounds like I’m not doing it justice next to Railsea, but to say it’s been in my head just as much, it’s also a beautiful, funny, dark story, completely different from the other, I’ll surely read it again, and the two are just not possible to compare, yet I do, and I can’t think about one without thinking about the other.

That’s it. Books finished (a couple unfinished). Many deserving a mention (some deserving ignominious burial). More books already begun, more still waiting to be collected. More reading.

Reading: Alex Strick van Linschoten, Felix Kuehn, Faisal Devji — Poetry of the Taliban

This is one book I’ve been waiting for a long time to arrive. It was around August last year when first set to be published, and I was fearing it would remain elusively in the future. So now, the top of my reading pile is graced with Poetry of the Taliban, edited by Alex Strick van Linschoten, Felix Kuehn, and Faisal Devji.

Why would such a book, with such a title appeal to me beyond perhaps a grotesque fascination? After all, the Taliban have a poor reputation, especially among women and others unfortunate enough to be without fist-length beards. Music would be a good place to begin an answer.

Central Asian and Persian music has been almost the totality of what I’ve listened to in the past couple of years (besides Metal in all its guises), and culture is what interests me in my reading on this part of the world. It’s extremely difficult to read anything on Afghanistan from the past ten years that doesn’t regard it through American eyes. There are a couple of very good writers on the Taliban, occupation by Soviet and American troops and intervening years of Mujahideen civil war who are more nuanced in their writing, but art, music, culture … it feels this largely stopped around the time Louis Duprée published Afghanistan.

Forty years of not much written on Afghan art and culture, along with a commensurate number of years of war.

As with music – and I’m listening to Mohammad Rahim Khushnawaz’s Rubab as I write this – poetry is at the heart of Afghan art. So to have a book of poems, some dating back to the Soviet occupation, from those very people who have been objectified as the antithesis of all that western culture stands against is a hugely important thing. A small thing also. It won’t change opinion, likely won’t be read by many beyond those already involved with Afghanistan, but it is a document of art and culture in the country in the past thirty years, partial, incomplete that it is.

And how strongly does it speak of the need, the desire, that even in such circumstances as Afghanistan people are compelled to make art?

A Life Spent Searching – the Travels and Writing of Annemarie Schwarzenbach

It’s mainly the reason why every October I write about all the books I’ve read in the last year, that some remain in my thoughts. Isabel Cole’s translation of Annamarie Schwarzenbach’s All Roads are Open is one of these, as well as having the kind of attention to typography, layout, and design that … well, makes me less likely to spill a late-night snack in bed over.

Which is to say, it’s already near the top of everything I’ve read in the last six months. I also read Ella Maillart’s The Cruel Way and Vita Sackville-West’s Twelve Days in Persia as a result, and Annamarie makes them both read like spoilt upper-class nobs whose only talent is the distinct whiff of colonial racism – I kept thinking if I was traveling with them I’d be obliged to leave them stranded and be off with their car and money because that’s all they’re good for. Perhaps being hooked on heroin gave Annamarie an empathy absent in these others; it did wonders for William Burroughs also. At very least, her translation into english adds a great deal to 20th century Central Asia writing.

25 April, 2012
Dialogue Books
Schönleinstraße 31
Berlin, Germany

RSVP is required:

Journalist, novelist, antifascist, archaeologist, world traveler, the Swiss writer Annemarie Schwarzenbach (1908-1942) became a European cult figure following her rediscovery in the 1990s. At long last, her works are also appearing in English via Seagull Books.

To celebrate, join Dialogue Books as we host Alexis Schwarzenbach, the writer’s grandnephew and the leading expert on her life and work. He and Annemarie Schwarzenbach’s translators Lucy Renner Jones and Isabel Fargo Cole will also read from a selection of her works suggesting the breadth of her concerns and creativity. Lyric Novella is the tale of a young “man’s” love for a nightclub singer in decadent Weimar-era Berlin, while Death in Persia is a more open exploration of lesbian love and existential anguish against the background of 1930’s Teheran, and All the Roads Are Open is an account of Schwarzenbach’s epic journey in a Ford from Switzerland to Afghanistan on the eve of World War II.


Annemarie Schwarzenbach, born in 1908 to one of Switzerland’s most prominent families, published her first novel at the age of 23. Her friends Klaus and Erika Mann introduced her to artistic circles, and she scandalized her conservative family by living an openly lesbian lifestyle and supporting leftwing political causes. From 1933 to 1941 she took numerous trips in Europe, the USSR, the United States, the Near East and Africa as a photojournalist covering social and political issues, while also publishing novels and short fiction. After the outbreak of World War II she sought ways to take political action, helping the Manns’ anti-Fascist efforts, but increasingly succumbed to depression and drug addiction.

Annemarie Schwarzenbach died in 1942 in Switzerland following a bicycle accident.

Reading: Ella Maillart — The Cruel Way

The first of my new pile of books, though i haven’t finished the last lot yet (some shall dwell in my reading stump for quite some time, I suspect, and one likely shall be read in the furthest-from orthodox manner possible; no starting at the start and finishing at the over end.

This one, Ella K. Maillart’s The Cruel Way, came to me from a conversation with Lucy who has been translating some of Annamarie Schwarzenbach, whom I met on the Pförtner bus with Isabel, translator of All the Roads are Open, currently near the top of my list for best non-fiction of the year. They both fielded me that afternoon with the names of several authors who reside at the intersection of a number of sets I have been distracted by for some time: women authors, writing on Afghanistan and Central Asia, in the (broad) subjects of anthropology and history.

I promptly forgot the names, though knew I’d get around to remembering soon enough, and thankfully Lucy scribbled them down for me. To Saint George’s!

When Annamarie travelled to Afghanistan overland by car in the second half of 1939, she did so with the companionship of another writer, Ella Maillart. For both of them, the journey resulted in a book, though until this year, Annamarie hadn’t been translated to english. Ella, on the other hand, was in english since 1947, with one peculiarity: there is no mention of Annamarie Schwarzenbach.

Ella travels with Christina. The one photo of her is from a distance, head down over the campsite, so as to be unrecognizable. Despite this (at the insistence of Annamarie’s mother), there is little or no disguising of whom she travelled with, though this does make for a somewhat sombre reading, knowing full well who Christina is, and that her identity is erased by her own mother in a perverse desire for familial respectability.

It is a rare pleasure to read two highly accomplished writers documenting the same journey; to see the same experiences through the eyes of each. Annamarie writes with such a sparse, poetic, lyrical style as to be a novelist, and very few fiction authors I have read can seduce in telling a story more than she. Ella is somewhat the opposite; a travel writer who is romantic almost becoming saccharine. Nonetheless not to say she is a poor writer, and being a couple of chapters in (arriving at Sophia), she recalls for me the best of the writers of who ventured into Central Asia in a manner unimaginable now.

Reading: Annemarie Schwarzenbach – All the Roads are Open: The Afghan Journey (trans. Isabel Fargo Cole)

In the first winter of Berlin for me, my poverty and the hanging dread of unwanted return to Australia were I to not remedy it both were alleviated by my sublime almost-dachgeschoß looking south-east over Bötzow Brauerei and on down the low hill across the city as far as Kreuzberg. That winter, a whole month from December’s solstice was met with days of clear frozen sky and opalescent sun, and I lived on Brussels sprouts and Chinese five-spice. Hardest though, was a lack of books, even though my small zwischenmiete was lined with shelves. Then, as now, my german was far too mediocre.

I did plunder those books for names though, and pulled out the occasional one in english, which I subsequently swallowed whole. One name I found recently returned, three years later.

Annamarie Schwarzenbach, the kind of beautiful trouble I fall to, likely because I wish I was myself that, yet I am quite acquainted with the creative paucity such habits tend me towards. Still … “Fast cars, drugs, Lesbianism, Berlin in the 30s, fleeing to Central Asia, Afghanistan, affairs with the daughters of important and famous people …” what more can I say than I did in January three years ago?

Firstly, I don’t have to suffer the lack of her in english. I found an email some months ago reminding me of that post and … The email led to more going back and forth, (even reeling in Dasniya via a thread to Alte-Kantine) and finally on Friday, immediately after my new tyres, to the bus of Café Pförtner where I met Isabel Fargo Cole and Lucy.

Books changed hands.

Isabel has very kindly given me a copy of Annamarie’s All the Roads are Open: The Afghan Journey, of which I can say little beyond my delight; her and there! I took a pause from all my Afghan and Central Asian reading entirely because of the utter lack of women in the frame, and yet my attention keeps drifting towards there … Afghanistan, Iran. I won’t be reading this for a couple of weeks at least, as I have a throbbing mass of China reminding me that I deserted them for science-fiction.